Recently a number of people have been marching in Dublin, saying that they are the Yellow Vests of Ireland. This is obviously inspired by the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) whose protests against the French Government began in November last year and swelled to huge numbers in Paris demonstrations and riots. Some smaller groups have announced their formation in different parts of Ireland too. But there are questions concerning them.
The Yellow Vests in Dublin have been meeting on Saturday afternoons at the Custom House and marching from there. I am busy on Saturdays and on the one day I made the time to join them, I did not find them and learned later from their posts that on that occasion they had gone to Dublin Port and apparently blocked the approach road for a period.
Originally the organisers stated that there would be no leaders but then two emerged, Glen Miller and Ben Gilroy. Until last week Gilroy was serving three months for contempt of court, a sentence imposed by a judge when he learned that Gilroy had not completed the community service sentence imposed for a previous contempt of court. Held in contempt of court a number of times Gilroy has always apologised afterwards and had his contempt considered “purged”, i.e cleared. It seems that the judge in this case decided that Gilroy was playing games with the court around the issue of contempt, which is probably a fair assumption (which is not at all to say that such actions are wrong).
Gilroy took a case to the High Court alleging failure to comply with certain legal requirement and on February 4th the Judge granted him liberty on bail in his own recognisance (i.e his own financial bond) while is case was discussed and decided. However this week the Judge ruled that his imprisonment was not unlawful and revoked Gilroy’s bail, which meant he had to return to jail.
In recent years a number of groups have sprung up which oppose a number of unpopular legal procedures, for example evictions, by a mixture of physical obstruction (by numbers of people) to bailiffs but also by appealing to what they claim are laws that take precedence over the legal procedures they are confronting. The “Land League” is one of these (no organic relationship to the 19th Century Irish organisation of Davitt and Parnell) and, not unrelated to the “League” in its reliance on arcane laws and procedures, real or imagined, is the Sovereign Movement, the “Irish Republican Brotherhood” (again, despite their claim of “inheritance”, no organic relationship to the 19th and 20th Century organisation) and the Fremen.
While some people are impressed by these arcane legalisms others are bewildered by or scornful of them and, despite their claims, these organisations seem unable to point to where their legalisms have actually been ultimately successful. They have certainly succeeded in slowing down such actions as repossessions and evictions by taking up court time and numbers turning up to block an eviction will often succeed in delaying the process, without any need to appeal to any kind of legalistic underpinning. Property rights reign supreme under capitalism and certainly the Irish state is no exception to that rule; on the other hand the authorities in the Irish state tend to prefer to carry out the normal business of capitalism with as little confrontation as possible.
Summoning numbers to block or delay an eviction and to support a victim of the system in court are of course tactics of struggle honoured by time and usage in Ireland, whether against the British administration or that of the Irish State. Such reliance on mobilisation of numbers can sometimes produce small or partial victories but they hint at something else – the mass mobilisation of insurrection and revolution. And that is part of the appeal of groups such as the “Land League” and probably in part of the Yellow Vests.
But if insurrection and revolution are hinted at, we need to know whether the hints are in earnest. Calling for a general election, one of the demands of the Yellow Vests, hardly seems insurrectionary. How would that change anything? Calling for an end to a number of attacks on working people including evictions is good but how is it to be achieved? Is there an objective of overthrowing capitalism and imperialism in Ireland? We do not hear so if there is. If an insurrection is hinted at, by whom is it to be and for whom?
It is here that we run into a disturbing problem: racism, of which Gilroy and Miller have both been accused. Any movement or organisation led by racists is not going to be one for progressive change in society, let alone a socialist insurrection but worse – it is likely to be a breeding ground for fascism. And of late, fascist forces are gathering throughout most of the world and certainly in Europe. Capitalism is struggling and the workers must be made to pay the cost through keeping wages and social expenditure down and profits high. When persuasion and collaborationist workers’ leaderships are no longer effective, capitalism must fall back on naked force. Fascist movements are the frontline of that force, its leading edge and racism (or religious sectarianism, with which we in Ireland have more experience) is used to divide the lower classes, the ones that will be made to pay.
Of course not all the people supporting the Yellow Vests are racist but when an anti-immigration banner is tolerated on a march1 then it would be remarkable if racism were not being tolerated as well. And with regard to the leadership, Glen Miller’s racism is well established from his posts on social media. He has posted material against immigration, against Muslims, against Travellers and against lesbian, gay and transgender people – classical minority targets of fascism to split the working people. He also shares racist material by others including Tommy Robinson, a fascist public figure operating in England.
Gilroy is not usually so glaringly racist but he has certainly posted an islamophobic rant on social media.
One might argue that Islam is a religion and that being against it is not racism. Perhaps not, if one were against all religion, for example. But ethnicity and religious belief or organisation are often interconnected, at least in particular periods and societies. Most muslims are not white European. And the Irish certainly know from their own experience how easily anti-Catholicism became conflated with anti-Irishness, in Britain for example, in the USA (think of WASPS and the ‘Nativists’) and in Ireland under colonial rule.
Islamophobes fantasise about Moslems taking over the country, anti-immigrationists fantasise about immigrants taking over the country, racists fantasise about non-Europeans taking over the country. There are nuances between them but in the end do they matter that much? The effect is the same: society is portrayed as divided by ethnic origin rather than by class and the focus is diverted from the bankers, gombeen capitalists and their political servants an on to migrants instead.
It might be argued that “looking after our own first” is a natural outlook and not racist. But we need to look at where that comes from and where it leads. It starts from the false premise that there is a great shortage and that we should divide those scarce resources first among the Irish. But in fact there is sufficient wealth produced in Ireland to fund all the education, housing and healthcare needs of all the people, immigrants included. And this is because the wealth is produced by working people – including migrants. The problem for us all is that that huge portions of that wealth is being diverted to fund the market gambling, lifestyles and financial empires of Gombeen (Irish capitalists) and foreign capitalists and bankers. Those are the people who would be rubbing their hands with glee or happily exchanging bribes and payoffs if, instead of uniting to confront them, the workers began to fight amongst themselves, divided by race or religion.
When the 1916 Proclamation declared the objective of the insurgents to “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation ….oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided the minority from the majority in the past”, it was addressing in part that religious sectarianism by which England had restrained the descendants of its colonists from overthrowing its colonial rule and also the pitting of Protestant against Catholic workers, a division which had been played out before 1916 and was to be enacted to even worse degree later. The “Protestants” were the “immigrants” of those years, along with their descendants2, albeit a privileged minority which migrants rarely are.
In making that statement, the insurgents of 1916 were drawing on an Irish revolutionary tradition stretching back to the United Irish of the 1790s and early 1800s, of the likes of Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and Robert Emmett. It was a tradition that ran through every revolutionary movement in Ireland since that time, through the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, a tradition that called for overcoming differences to build unity against the common enemy. That is the unity that fascists and racists seek to shatter.
Fascists may and often do verbally castigate capitalist governments, politicians, industrialists and bankers. But they end up serving them. They split the mass of the working and lower middle classes on the basis of race, they attack the defence organisations of the working class, they target other groups such as gay and lesbians, push women into the most subservient roles possible. The Nazis were “National Socialists” and part of their movement talked about nationalising industry under workers’ control. But they were backed by big capitalists such as Thyssen, Krupp and IG Farben and many others in Germany. In the USA and in Britain they were backed by Henry Ford and promoted by Viscounts Northcliffe and Rothermere, owners of the Daily Mail (until England declared war on Germany and the US entered WWII on the Allied side). The Nazis in Germany took over the trade union offices on Mayday and closed them down, forcing workers instead to join fascist unions controlled from the top, part of the State.
WHAT KIND OF UNITY?
It is interesting that while fascists divide the working people in order to facilitate their control and undermine the struggles against the capitalist class, they often cry for unity. German unity. Aryan unity. White unity. Spanish unity. British unity. Irish unity. And when people have criticised individual leading figures in these groups, in particular recently of the Yellow Vests in Ireland, they have been accused of dividing, of undermining the struggle and calls for “unity” have been raised.
Whether it is right that the court should consider it criminal for someone to hold it up to disrepute, as Gilroy and some others have done on occasion, is another question and whether three months is a reasonable punishment for “contempt of court” in another. The courts are instruments of the State which in turn is an instrument of the ruling class and as such all revolutionaries must perforce hold them in disrepute and, in my opinion, three months in jail is excessive by normal standards in this state. But cries raised by the Irish Yellow Vests against this seek to glorify Gilroy as some kind of “people’s leader” and in turn to promote the ‘Vests’ as a viable resistance movement.
Workers know that unity in struggle is necessary but have also learned over the years that calls for unity may also be used to allow collaborationist trade union leaders and politicians to continue misleading the workers. Such calls can be employed to silence questions about where the movement is going. And now they are being used, unwittingly by some no doubt, to the effect of trying to silence the challenges to such as Gilroy and Miller about their racism and where they are trying to lead the Yellow Vests.
Such calls are being used not only to stifle the criticism of the leaders’ racism but to undermine the criticism of racism itself, as though racism were some kind of Leftie concept or diversion from the real issues. In a post in defence of Gilroy on 18th January, Miller posted a long ‘plain folksy’ discourse in which he said that Gilroy and he have “no time for political correctness and the posh talk”. So according to that discourse we should ignore the accusations of racism, action is needed, and for that we need unity – we should stop bleating on about racism. But the action is often dubious, the destination vague, the unity based on lack of analysis and stifling of criticism and – ultimately – on the opposite of unity, the division of the working people and the undermining of their resistance to those who are the real source of their misery and discontent.
It is not because of the anti-racist or politically-correct posturing of anyone, whether middle class or not, that socialists stand against racism: it is not just because it is inhumane, either; it is primarily because it splits and weakens the working class and diverts anger and resentment from the real enemy.
The Yellow Vests in Ireland are by no means a fascist or even racist movement. But they tolerate racists, are led by racists and could provide a breeding ground for fascists – something for which fascists are always on the lookout.
WHAT TO DO?
So what should be our response, as socialists of various kinds?
First, I think we need to step back and examine the situation a little. The Yellow Vests here copy the Yellow Vests in Paris. Awhile back, the Socialist parties (I do not count the Labour Party in this) wanted us to copy the Greek uprising and Syriza’s electoral success. Earlier than that, some people wanted us to emulate the Indignados of Spain. And further back still, others sought to copy the Occupation movement of the USA.
It seems to me that all that striving speaks of a desperate need felt by some elements in our society, a need that cries out that something must be done; something to cure the mess that our Gombeen system has made of our health and welfare systems, of the housing crisis, of cuts to other services; that some stand should be made against paying off the bankers’ gambling debts with our hard-earned money and trying to get us to pay a third tax on our water supply when the money collected already has not been used as it should. A feeling that something should be done about the corruption of that give-away of our natural resources, about the selling of our transport, postal, telecommunications systems, about the funding of private landlords, about renewed emigration of our young. About increased hours and travel time spent just trying to stay still economically but nevertheless slipping slowly back. About evictions of people who have paid the actual building cost of their homes a number of times over. About governments that oversee this rotten system, worrying chiefly about staying in government and pleasing native and foreign capitalists; about a police force in which we find an average of a scandal per year with no end in sight and yet happy to repress people’s resistance …. and with their Armed Response Unit cars to be seen everywhere around the city centre.
Those people are right, of course. Something should be done. Something must be done. But what? There’s the rub, as they say. The working class should rise and take power, is the classic revolutionary socialist answer; also of the socialist Republicans, who tie the question to getting rid of British colonialism. Whether our revolutionary socialists in Ireland are actually revolutionary is a good question however, and in any case they are small parties. Whether our socialist Republicans are actually socialists or Republicans first is another interesting question and in any case they are splintered in groups and independents.
All those movements abroad that various people tried to emulate or reproduce here in Ireland did not succeed in changing the situation in their own lands. The USA, the country with the most billionaires in the world (and in politics!), continues to slide towards eventual downfall, in huge debt as a result of funding its military-industrial-financial system, for which billions around the world and millions inside its own borders pay with misery ….. and still the debt cannot be paid. But a huge sub-class exists, often living in city wastelands of run-down housing estates.
The Spanish state continues to squeeze its citizens, prepares to go to war against a nation seeking independence and fascist groups organise openly. Suicides prior to, during or after evictions are no longer startling news.
The Greek Left-coalition government of Syriza collapsed and prostrated itself to the EU and the IMF and schools had to close in winter for lack of heating fuel.
The French Government has alternated repression with some concessions but ultimately nothing has changed.
The growing vacuum of resistance in Ireland will be filled by a revolutionary movement based on working people in militant resistance to – and directed at – the capitalist system. Or it will be filled by fascism.
To build a revolutionary resistance movement, unity in struggle is needed and for that unity, racism must be driven out of the people’s movements. That will not be done by condemnation of racists alone. It will not be achieved only by calling for unity against capitalism. The revolutionary movement must be built and it is by action that it will distinguish itself and attract support from the militant sections of the people.
It is by its revolutionary critical discussion on politics, history, science and culture that it will inform the mass of its potential and necessary objectives.
It will not be built by theoretical declarations or arguments alone, nor by actions that are either timid or cannot be maintained, or by actions of only a few far in advance of the mass. Some of the actions will, perforce be risky and the State will exert a price.
But it is either that or – fascism awaits.
1Reported on at least one of the marches and I have seen a photograph of it
2Some Protestants were descendants of Catholics who had changed their religion to avoid persecution or land confiscation and some Catholics were descendants of Protestants who had converted or who had married a Catholic who raised their children in that faith. But largely, Anglicans, Presbyterians and other Protestant sects in Ireland were descendants of waves of colonists in particular from the 15th Century onwards, while Catholics were largely descendants of the indigenous Irish and of the Norman invaders.